In 1972, when streaking and protest music were in vogue on the campus of Georgetown University, student body president Roger Cochetti created Students of Georgetown Inc. to file student lawsuits. The company eventually took over a small used-book cooperative to help students beat the high cost of living.
The lawsuits never came to fruition, but the humble co-op thrived. Eighteen years later, protest music is back in style, streaking isn't and Students of Georgetown, more commonly referred to as "the Corp," still runs the co-op along with seven other retail outlets. The stores have combined annual sales of more than $2.5 million.
The company claims the sales figure makes it one of the nation's largest student-owned and operated businesses.
"You sit back and look at what we're doing," said Students of Georgetown President Todd Thiessen, a senior studying business administration. "It's a $2.5-million organization run by 19- to 21-year-olds. It's incredible."
In addition to the book co-op, the company's 170 student employees staff an on-campus grocery, a store selling sundries, a travel agency, a video rental store and advertising, typing and package-handling services.
The Corp rivals such successful student-run businesses as the $2.6-million Harvard Student Agencies Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., producers of the "Let's Go" travel guides, which sold 600,000 copies worldwide last year. And it does so even though its market is much smaller: 3,500 on-campus residents, commuting students and Georgetown's university and hospital employees.
Like Thiessen, experts seem impressed with how much the Corp sells, given its relatively small pool of customers. Such proportions are a sign of "a management that recognizes where the growth areas are," said Jerry Feigen, a business administration professor at Georgetown and former director of the Michael D. Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland.
Nearly all the Corp's outlets face competition from other local businesses, including a market near the south end of campus and a 24-hour Safeway three blocks north. And moving its operations to the Leavey Student Center in 1988 meant a fourfold increase in rent. Nevertheless, if Students of Georgetown were a for-profit company, it would have had a profit of $130,000 last year.
As a nonprofit organization, the company has managed to keep its prices lower than competitors, or at least comparable. For example, a can of soda at Vital Vittles, the grocery store, is 35 cents -- 25 cents to 40 cents cheaper than at neighborhood markets.
Students of Georgetown's efforts to provide as wide a selection as possible in its two largest outlets, Vital Vittles and Saxa Sundries, have made it easier for customers to put off trips to Safeway. "It fills in the gaps," said senior Chris Kellogg, making her way through its crowded aisles.
That the Corp exists at all as a student business independent from the university is exceptional. On the campuses of most universities, student-staffed retail operations are mostly run by administrations or by outside companies. Those that aren't usually are given advice or financial help from the university.
Students of Georgetown's independence is a source of pride for its management.
"We're independent because we were set up that way and we like it. It works for us," said Henry Yaeger, the Corp's vice president in charge of finance.
Students of Georgetown is different from nearly all on-campus retail operations in the Washington area. The one that most closely resembles it is the University of Maryland's Food Co-op, a smaller independent operation that, unlike the Georgetown group, has no management hierarchy. For the last 15 years, the University of Maryland co-op has sold bulk foods, apparel and sandwiches at the College Park campus.
But unlike the Food Co-op, which donates its income to selected charities, Students of Georgetown sets aside its profit to be reinvested into its operations. Revenue generated in recent years was used to start the videotape rental store Movie Mayhem, which opened last year.
In deciding where to venture, the Corp has used its motto, "Students Serving Students," as a guide. For example, Thiessen said, the reason for opening a video rental store on campus was in part that some students were worried about walking Georgetown's streets to rent a movie.
At one time, providing convenience to students took on a different form. Over the years, various managers of Students of Georgetown have come up with different interpretations of "Students Serving Students," with nearly disastrous results at times.
In 1977, for example, Georgetown's administration objected to the sales at Vital Vittles of condoms and pipes used primarily for smoking marijuana. Vital Vittles managers removed the items, deciding that serving student demand shouldn't come at the risk of angering the administration.
Since then, Students of Georgetown has gone on to become something of an institution. Some employees consider the organization one of the closest things Georgetown has to a fraternity, while others think of it as a family. While some employees hope to gain experience as managers, many join for the fun of working with friends.
Yaeger estimates that for the three or four positions that opened this fall in each of the eight outlets, an average of 25 students applied. Some of those who landed starting positions, which pay $5 an hour, had applied more than once to show their enthusiasm.
As Students of Georgetown prepares to turn another year older, founder Cochetti, now vice president for mobile business planning at Communications Satellite Corp., said while he never expected Students of Georgetown to become as diversified as it is, he isn't surprised it has grown as big as it has. He credits that to the abilities of his successors.
"It was the honest work and creativity of a lot of students over the years that made it happen," he said.